If Thomas Jefferson Had His Way, There Would Be No Days of Prayer

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Here is Thomas Jefferson to Samuel Miller, January 23, 1808

I have duly received your favor of the 18th and am thankful to you for having written it, because it is more agreeable to prevent than to refuse what I do not think myself authorized to comply with. I consider the government of the US. as interdicted by the Constitution from intermeddling with religious institutions, their doctrines, discipline, or exercises. This results not only from the provision that no law shall be made respecting the establishment, or free exercise, of religion, but from that also which reserves to the states the powers not delegated to the U. S. Certainly no power to prescribe any religious exercise, or to assume authority in religious discipline, has been delegated to the general government. It must then rest with the states, as far as it can be in any human authority. But it is only proposed that I should recommend, not prescribe a day of fasting & prayer. That is, that I should indirectly assume to the U. S. an authority over religious exercises which the Constitution has directly precluded them from. It must be meant too that this recommendation is to carry some authority, and to be sanctioned by some penalty on those who disregard it; not indeed of fine and imprisonment, but of some degree of proscription perhaps in public opinion. And does the change in the nature of the penalty make the recommendation the less a law of conduct for those to whom it is directed? I do not believe it is for the interest of religion to invite the civil magistrate to direct it’s exercises, it’s discipline, or it’s doctrines; nor of the religious societies that the general government should be invested with the power of effecting any uniformity of time or matter among them. Fasting & prayer are religious exercises. The enjoining them an act of discipline. Every religious society has a right to determine for itself the times for these exercises, & the objects proper for them, according to their own particular tenets; and this right can never be safer than in their own hands, where the constitution has deposited it.

I am aware that the practice of my predecessors may be quoted. But I have ever believed that the example of state executives led to the assumption of that authority by the general government, without due examination, which would have discovered that what might be a right in a state government, was a violation of that right when assumed by another. Be this as it may, every one must act according to the dictates of his own reason, & mine tells me that civil powers alone have been given to the President of the US. and no authority to direct the religious exercises of his constituents.

I again express my satisfaction that you have been so good as to give me an opportunity of explaining myself in a private letter, in which I could give my reasons more in detail than might have been done in a public answer: and I pray you to accept the assurances of my high esteem & respect.

Notice Jefferson parts ways here with “his predecessors”–Adams and Washington.  Let the states have all the days of prayer that they want to have, but it is not appropriate for the federal government to call for such a day.

Jefferson, Secession, and Monuments

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Last night on CNN, host James Lemon had African-American public intellectual Michael Eric Dyson on his program.  Lemon asked Dyson to respond to the comments Donald Trump made yesterday about historical monuments.  Trump said:

So this week, it is Robert E. Lee. I noticed that Stonewall Jackson is coming down.  I wonder, is it George Washington next week?  And is it Thomas Jefferson the week after? You know, you really do have to ask yourself, where does it stop.

All day the commentators on CNN have been outraged that Trump would compare Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee to Thomas Jefferson and George Washington.  Dyson responded by saying that Lee and Jackson seceded from the union, while Jefferson and Washington, despite owning slaves, formed a “bulwark” against slavery by articulating the ideals that eventually brought the institution to an end.

On one level, I found Dyson’s comment refreshing.  When commentators say that we can’t find a usable past in Western Civilization because it is tainted by the sin of slavery, I often cringe.  Yes, Western Civilization has been inherently racist.  Yes, Western Civilization brought us slavery.  But at the same time, Western Civilization brought us the ideas and ideals–liberty and freedom especially–that were eventually applied to the slavery and ultimately brought it to an end.

I have little patience for defenders of Western Civilization who fail to acknowledge its relationship with race.  I have little patience for those who demonize Western Civilization without acknowledging the historical complexity I wrote about above.  I read several books and articles this summer that propagated both fallacies.

But when it comes to Jefferson, things are even more complicated than this.  If you read Ibram X Kendi’s recent New York Times op-ed you will learn that some of Jefferson’s ideas contributed to secession.

So should the Jefferson monuments come down?

The conversation continues.

(See my last post where I discussed this more fully).

What Would Jefferson Say?

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What would Jefferson say about the events that took place this past weekend in Charlottesville?  The short answer is: “I have no idea.”  We can speculate, but we can’t bring Jefferson back from the grave to give his opinion.  It is an impossible question to answer and this is why we need to approach these kinds of queries with caution.

Having said that, historians can offer reasonable suggestions about what Jefferson may have thought about a troublesome moment like this. And since white supremacists marched through the campus he founded on Friday night, it is worth trying to think together about how he would have responded.

This is what historian Ibram X Kendi did in yesterday’s Washington Post.  Kendi teaches history at American University and is the National Book Award-winning author of Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America.

Here is a taste:

In sum, Jefferson’s legacy embodied the clash that snatched and harmed human life in the city of Jefferson over the last few days.

Confederate leaders revered Jefferson long before they seceded from the Union. To some he was a direct relative. He was the second cousin-in-law of Lee.

To others, he was an inspiration. Jefferson Davis was not just named after him. As a slaveholder, U.S. senator and then Confederate president, Davis shared Jefferson’s values: states’ rights, limited federal power over their property, extended federal military power over their captives, racist ideas and constitutional protections for slavery.

Although Confederate leaders traced their ideological and relational roots to Jefferson, they also knew that his most famous words threatened their plantations. The Confederates seceded from Thomas Jefferson when they seceded from his independent Union. If Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence remains the soul of the United States, then Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens revealed what historian Henry V. Jaffa termed “the soul of the Confederacy” on March 21, 1861. Both justified their new nations and laid out their ideals.

Read the rest here.

Wiencek Responds to Jan Lewis

If you were reading this weekend you are aware of my posts (here and here) on the Annette Gordon-Reed and Jan Lewis reviews of Henry Wiencek’s Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves.

Wiencek has responded to Lewis in the comments section of her Daily Beast review. Here is the response:

I will ignore the petty twistifications in Jan Ellen Lewis’s comments on my book — the blather about indexes and the unpleasant remark about my eyesight — and get to the meat.

The problems with her review begin in the first sentence, where she mocks me for writing that Monticello is “literally above the clouds.” Perhaps she does not know that it was Jefferson himself who made that observation, in one of his most famous letters: “And our own dear Monticello . . . How sublime to look down into the workhouse of nature, to see her clouds, hail, snow, rain, thunder, all fabricated at our feet!”

Lewis taunts me for writing, “In ways that no one completely understands, Monticello became populated by a number of mixed-race people who looked astonishingly like Thomas Jefferson, and adds, smirking, “Um, I think we have that one figured out.” Actually, we don’t have it figured out. Jefferson’s grandson wrote that not just Sally Hemings but another Hemings woman also had children who clearly resembled Jefferson. Who was that other woman? Who were her children? Who was the father? I’ve never seen an explanation; if Lewis has seen one I will happily stand corrected. 

Among the “howlers” Lewis claims to have found is my statement that just after the American Revolution “Virginia came close to outlawing the continuation of slavery,” and she claims I quoted “some pages in a recent book that say nothing of the sort.” In fact I first quote from George Mason’s draft of the Virginia Declaration of Rights the statement that “all men are equally free and independent, and have certain inherent natural rights, of which they can not by any Compact, deprive or divest their Posterity”; I go on to quote Eva Sheppard Wolf’s analysis: “Several Revolutionary-era Virginia laws seemed to signal a shift toward anti-slavery policies that could have led to universal emancipation.” (In a passage I didn’t quote in my book, Wolf further writes that some historians “see several indications that it was possible to end = American slavery in the late eighteenth century.”) I make it clear that this surge of liberal sentiment was short-lived–but it should be noted that Virginia passed a very liberal manumission law in 1782, by which Jefferson could have freed slaves. So there is no “howler.”

And now we come to Lewis’s incoherent effort to refute the irrefutable — my verbatim quotation of Jefferson’s 1792 calculation that his enslaved population grew at the rate of 4% a year, which yielded a profit for Monticello. She tries to discredit this by quoting a letter he wrote a year later that does not support her argument at all. Lewis is trying to lead us into the weeds. Jefferson said what he said. Lewis does not mention Jefferson’s unnerving advice to a neighbor, which I quote in the book, to invest in Negroes because they “bring a silent profit of from 5 to 10 per cent in this country by the increase in their value.” Did Jefferson not write that? Or did he write it but
not mean it?

I am pleased that she quotes Jefferson proclaiming, “there is nothing I would not sacrifice to a practicable plan of abolishing every vestige of this moral and political depravity.” He said that at least four times, but my point has been to show that nonetheless, he sacrificed nothing to end slavery, even when Kosciuszko left him a bequest of some $20,000 to enable Jefferson to free his slaves. Lewis does not mention that uncomfortable story.

Lewis’s loudest condemnation of my book is that there is nothing new in it, that she and others have long known all this. But if they knew all this, why didn’t they tell us that Jefferson recommended investing in black people as a financial strategy, or that “the small ones” were whipped to get them to work in his nail factory? Perhaps they feel as a visitor to Monticello did: “An awe and veneration was felt for Mr. Jefferson among his neighbors which . . . rendered it shameful to even talk about his name in such a connexion.” Better that the people not know these things, I guess.

Henry Wiencek